In 1787 the Founding Fathers devised both the Northwest Ordinance and the new U.S. Constitution. These documents created the theoretical and practical foundations for a fledgling nation’s political and physical growth.
While launched in the same year, the two documents have startling differences in their approach to questions of slavery. The crafters of the Constitution carefully avoided using the word “slavery,” but gave it their tacit approval by including provisions regarding fugitive slaves, allowing slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person for taxation and representation, and continuing the international slave trade until at least 1808. In striking contrast, the Northwest Ordinance clearly prohibited slavery and indentured servitude in any of the states formed from the Northwest Territory.
As one of the five states created from the Northwest Territory, Indiana prohibited slavery and indentured servitude in its 1816 constitution. Still, as in the rest of the United States, slavery in practice was far from a settled issue. Between 1816 and 1863 the Indiana Supreme Court grappled frequently with slavery and related issues like involuntary indentures and the treatment of fugitive slaves. This article examines some of the most compelling cases before the Court during that period, and how, for the most part, the Court worked to uphold the constitution’s prohibition in the face of considerable public opposition.
This article originally appeared in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History in Summer 2003.We reprint it as part of the Indiana Supreme Court’s Legal History Series with the hope of increasing Hoosiers’ knowledge and interest in their past.We offer additional copies at no charge.
Randall T. Shepard, Chief Justice of Indiana